For a couple of years now, I've doubted the official story of William Shakespeare - the not-very-well-educated farmboy, William of Stratford (hereafter simply William), who migrated from the provinces to the big city and promptly established himself as the most eloquent writer of his age, and indeed of any age. Over the past century or more, a number of arguments have been advanced to suggest that this story, however endearing it may be, is simply not very probable. In particular, it is argued:
- that Shakespeare has a detailed personal knowledge of locations throughout the continent of Europe, but there is no evidence that William ever left England.
- that Shakespeare derived some of his material from sources that were available only in Italian, French, Spanish, or Greek, but there is no evidence that William knew how to read any of these languages.
- that Shakespeare is intimately acquainted with aristocratic pursuits, such as falconry, which were off-limits to commoners like William.
- that Shakespeare sympathizes with the aristocracy, makes in-joke references to the Elizabethan court, and seems to have personally experienced the life of a courtier, all of which is inexplicable if William wrote the plays.
- that Shakespeare had access to a considerable (and vastly expensive) library, which William probably did not.
- that Shakespeare has firsthand knowledge of traveling by sea, but there is no evidence that William ever set foot on a sailing vessel.
- that Shakespeare has firsthand knowledge of combat, but there is no evidence that William ever served in the military.
- that Shakespeare knows the ins and outs of the law and sprinkles legal terms throughout his writings, but there is no evidence that William was ever trained in the law.
- that Shakespeare views commoners, individually, as clowns and oafs, and, collectively, as dangerous mobs, a view that would come naturally to an aristocrat but not to a provincial farmboy like William.
- that Shakespeare weaves subtle political overtones into this plays and poetry that would probably have gotten William thrown in jail, as the commoner Ben Jonson was jailed for his "seditious" play The Isle of Dogs.
- that Shakespeare identifies himself in his sonnets as old, lame, and publicly disgraced, a description that does not fit William, a prosperous young man on the rise.
- that Shakespeare offers advice and, sometimes, warnings to the aristocratic recipient of the sonnets, something that a commoner like William would not have dared to do.
There are other arguments, but these give you the flavor of the case. But if William was not the "real" Shakespeare, then who was?
The favorite candidate today is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. I've read several books arguing the "Oxfordian" position. Online I found the complete text of "Shakespeare" Identified, by the first person to nominate de Vere for the role, J. Thomas Looney. (I pause for the inevitable chuckle at his funny name.) From there I proceeded to the more recent and more comprehensive book The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn, and Ogburn's much briefer introductory book on the subject, The Man Who Was Shakespeare. Along the way I encountered Joseph Sobran's Alias Shakespeare and several other interesting books, not to mention a wide variety of Web sites. (For a bibliography, see my online essay "Shakespeare vs. Shakespeare.")
Over time I became more and more persuaded that the "Stratfordian" case was weak and that William was probably a front man for some aristocrat reluctant to publish his works under his real name because of the considerable social stigma attached to writing for the common stage - and perhaps for other reasons. Still, I was not sure de Vere was the man.
I am now.
What changed my mind? A new biography of de Vere by Mark Anderson, titled "Shakespeare" By Another Name. Anderson, relying on a huge number of sources, fleshes out the earl of Oxford's life in more detail than I have previously seen - and draws explicit parallels between Oxford's life and times and the characters and plot lines of Shakespeare's works. The resulting portrait is so clear and compelling that I can only say that if Edward de Vere was not Shakespeare, he surely should have been.
Again and again Anderson shows how otherwise obscure passages from Shakespeare's plays can be understood as topical allusions to palace intrigues and matters of state that took place long before William of Stratford had ever appeared in London.
A single example must suffice. It involves Anderson's hypothesis that an early draft of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was the same play described by an antiquarian (who once had the manuscript in his possession) as "a pleasant conceit of Vere, earl of Oxford ... circa 1580." In 1580 William of Stratford was only 16 years old. Could Twelfth Night have been written so early - not by William, but by Edward de Vere? Here, much abbreviated, is Anderson's argument:
De Vere and [the courtier Christopher] Hatton were notorious rivals circa 1580, and Twelfth Night mocks Hatton relentlessly: Twelfth Night's self-infatuated clod Malvolio is a barely concealed caricature of [Hatton] ... Malvolio happens upon a prank letter designed to make him look like an ass in front of the entire household. The letter is signed "The Fortunate Unhappy" - an English reversal of the Latin pen name (Felix Infortunatus; "the happy unfortunate") that Hatton used ...
The Jesuit priest Edmund Campion ... had spent much of the 1570s preaching his message abroad, primarily in Prague ... He was arrested in 1581 and tortured. His treason trial was a farce ... Campion was given all of two hours to work on his courtroom defense. He was even denied use [of] pen, ink, or paper to compose his thoughts ...
In perhaps the most enigmatic scene in Twelfth Night (Act 4, Scene 2), Malvolio is thrown into a mock prison and denied pen, ink, and paper. The fool Feste cross-examines Malvolio with his characteristically witty doublespeak, tossing off an aside about a "hermit of Prague who never saw pen and ink."...
[Finally] Twelfth Night captures the mood of a brief moment on the international stage between 1578 and '80 ... when King Sebastian of Portugal turned up missing in action [and presumed drowned] ...
King Sebastian of Portugal had left no heir or clear line of succession, and to make matters worse, no one was even certain that Sebastian had died in 1578. On January 31, 1580, King Philip of Spain prevailed [in the struggle for control of Portugal]. The Portuguese kingdom and military were now to be under Spain's command ...
Yet, if Sebastian washed ashore someday, he could rightfully seize the crown back from Spain and cripple the Spanish menace. Rumors persisted ... that Sebastian was still alive and preparing to make his triumphant return. Many in Elizabeth's courts had also championed the cause of Antonio, a pretender to the Portuguese throne ...
The story of Twelfth Night is in part the story of two friends, Antonio and Sebastian, who are reunited when the latter washes ashore and into the action of drama. Sebastian is widely believed to have perished at sea ...
These clear parallels illuminate the action of the play and set it in a recognizable historical context. They clarify what is otherwise obscure - like Malvolio's bizarre imprisonment.
One set of parallels is hardly conclusive, but Anderson offers similar treatments of most of Shakespeare's works, showing again and again how the political battles, social controversies, and marital discord of de Vere's own life are reflected in the plots and characters of Hamlet, As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Othello, King Lear, and the rest.
Brick by brick, over the course of 380 pages, not to mention 30 pages of appendices and 145 pages of endnotes, Anderson builds an overwhelming circumstantial case for the Oxfordian position. As he admits, there is no smoking gun, no single piece of evidence that provides absolute proof - but the sum total of the evidence he submits ought to be dispositive to any open-minded reader.
I don't expect the walls of academe to come tumbling down just because Mark Anderson has blown his trumpet. The Stratfordians, stubborn defenders of orthodoxy, will resist the inescapable conclusions prompted by this book, just as they have resisted, dismissed, and laughed off the arguments of Looney, Ogburn, and others. But I now think that theirs is a rearguard action and a losing cause. The case has been made, and eventually it will carry the day.
Edward de Vere was Shakespeare. And sooner or later, everyone will know it.